Internet of Things: a game changer for cities?

September 10, 2015 16:24
Internet of Things is the next Industrial Revolution, says Rob van Kranenburg, founder of the IoT Council in the Netherlands. Photo: YouTube

Internet of Things (IoT), a terminology that describes objects interconnected through sensors, wireless networks and other technologies, is being touted as a game-changer for the future development of cities.

By 2020, the number of connected things used by smart cities will increase to 9.7 billion from 1.1 billion at present, according to IT research company Gartner.

“Smart cities” is a terminology used to describe cities in which digital technologies are used to improve the efficiency of urban services.

But what remains unclear is how IoT will revolutionize urban life and who should take the lead in this transformation.

“IoT is the next Industrial Revolution and it will have even bigger impact than you think,” says Rob van Kranenburg, founder of the IoT Council in the Netherlands and project leader of, a non-profit group that conducts researches and develops free and open source software and services for the community.

“Just think of it as an invisible layer of data over everything and now you can access that layer through technologies such as radio frequency identification, near field communication or even just a QR code.”

He envisions three stages of the IoT revolution: streamlining for efficiency and cost reduction, real-time mobility information and traffic coordination and a full integration of every network.

In Singapore, the government has started testing how to leverage IoT to improve the efficiency of urban services.

Jurong Lake District is a pilot site with more than 1,000 sensors to test various smart city initiatives. uClim, a web-based service that aims to provide urban planners with real-time environmental information is an example.

Ayesha Khanna, an expert in education, technology and urbanization and a guest lecturer of the National University of Singapore’s Smart Policies for Sustainable Cities program, describes IoT as “the foundation of sustainable smart cities”.

In her book Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization, Khanna notes that humanity had three technological revolutions – the Stone Age, the Industrial Age and the Information Age. Now, she says, we are in the Hybrid Age, a new era defined by human-machine interdependence.

As technology is increasingly integrated into our daily lives, smart city appears a natural progression. But Khanna notes that smart city requires more than just “hardware”.

She said: “To build a smart city, you need more than just hardware – sensors and other communication technologies – you also need software that connects agencies to each other, an education framework that delivers relevant skills needed for innovation and regulatory policies around data privacy."

While experts highlight the key role that government plays in this transformation, Simon Galpin, director-general of investment promotion at InvestHK, believes that the private sector is a key driver.

“Hong Kong needs private initiative such as Brinc to drive the development of IoT ecosystem, as market force will ensure the players to make the most from the opportunities in Hong Kong IoT scene,” he says.

He cites the recent establishment of Hong Kong’s first IoT accelerator Brinc as a notable example of Hong Kong’s rapidly evolving IoT ecosystem.

According to him, the government has the responsibility to support and facilitate the growth of the ecosystem. He cites the launch of, a portal that provides more than 3,000 datasets in 18 categories, as one of those initiatives that encourage the use of government data for innovative applications.

However, IoT Council’s van Kranenburg cautions that some open data schemes have been misused in the last decade, forcing citizens to pay double for innovations based on government data.

As he puts it: “Open data is ported to commercial operators who use that open data to develop applications and sell them back to citizens.”

“Citizens pay taxes. Taxes pay for databases. They pay twice,” he adds.

While technology opens up new possibilities for cities, he describes smart city as a "battlefield”.

He urges cities to stop giving away data. Instead, cities should build their own platforms and innovations, he says.

“For your own sake, as a citizen, you better hope that IoT remains in [semi-public] hands. If it is fully privatized, you will have to pay for your streetlight.”

He is referring to a new business model of Philips that supplies LED-based products and charges light service based on subscription rather than one-time payment.

“Who can you complain to if you are no longer able to pay for the app that talks to your streetlight?”

-- Contact us at [email protected]


an independent contributor and consultant